You are a Weeble

First impressions are all important. That first climb, first hike, first fell run… your first times outdoors make a lasting impression on your enjoyment, how far you’ll push, and how good you’ll ever get. You are a Weeble, centering on where you began, where you first wanted to go.

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A Weeble. He’s grounded and steadfast, but will always return to his roots. That’s reassuring, but it can put a limiter on ambition.

Dave MacLeod
Dave MacLeod is almost certainly the UK’s best all round climber. In fact, his CV would stand up against the very best in the world: Scottish XII, M13, WI 7, trad E11, 9a sport, 8C boulder, alpine ED++, etc etc.. He’s said that the first time he ever went rock climbing, by chance he watched the first ascent of what was then Scotland’s hardest traditional rock climb. He didn’t realise that what he was watching was exceptional, that it was far from typical. As he watched he thought ‘I’d like to try that one day’. For many people there thoughts would more likely be: 1) that looks too hard; 2) that looks scary; 3) hell no. So obviously his ambition and drive were there from the start.

But from that first day out his framework for climbing was built around ‘I want to climb the hardest route in Scotland’.

That he achieved that and far more besides is only half the deal, the other half is wanting to get there, and that first impression, that first day out, was crucial.

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Dave Macleod training hard in his garage. Training hard is what makes you the best, but those first impressions can prove vital in determining how good you want to be.

The environment you grow up in has arguably the greatest impact of all on how far you’ll go in life, which is either tragic or empowering depending on how you look at it. With fairly specialist facets of life (e.g. sport, music, needlecraft, painting, etc.) that effect is seen in microcosm, and the more I’ve thought about Dave’s story the more I’ve realised that it is typical of so many people in various different pursuits.

 

Me
I was lucky enough to be brought up by parents who are keen hillwalkers. As a result I’ve been out in the hills for as long as I can remember. Big walks in all sorts of terrain have come completely naturally to me. To me, to be a decent hill walker isn’t being capable of hiking a few miles and then going home. No, it’s big walks in rugged terrain and up plenty of peaks.

My parents are both musicians, and my dad a very good one. As a result, I see the basic standard of a musician to be much higher than what most people might consider. It might be an elitist view, maybe unrealistic, but basically unless you are Grade 8 standard on an instrument I see you as a beginner or relative beginner. For other people who had friends or parents who were less musically talented, to reach what I would regard as proficient would be seen as an almost unachievable goal, maybe an unnecessary waste of time.

Again, my early experiences defined how far I thought you had to get to be ‘proficient’, or skilled enough.

Me as a climber
I started rock climbing as a way to progress up more routes in the Alps and in Scottish winter. Along the way I started to enjoy it for its own sake, but those early impressions – this is training, I need to be just good enough – have stuck with me and influenced me greatly.

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Me on terrain I’m very at-home in – easy rock climbing on a big mountain. That’s climbing for me, and that’s because of where I started.

I don’t think I’ll ever be a great rock climber, primarily because I don’t want to be, but also because the standard I have always seen as being a decent rock climber is someone who can lead about VS, or about 5.7 in USA terms, or maybe 6a sport. That’s not very high in the grand scheme of things. A major factor in this reasoning is because most of my friends who I spent my early times out climbing with were in the same boat as me: hikers seeking to get better on harder scrambles.

As a result, grades like Very Difficult were interpreted literally, and Extreme grade climbs discussed only in revered and hushed tones.

I’ve since seen that Extreme grade routes aren’t necessarily all that hard, and some of the people I now climb with have plenty of E-points racked up.

But for me I still have an anchor in my head, a Weeble which pulls me back: these climbs are too hard for me.

If I were more driven, more like Dave MacLeod, this would be no obstacle, but that younger me, the hiker me, is still at my core. And those routes aren’t for a hiker.

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On a big rock route – didn’t ever think I’d be doing this. With the right people around you the Weeble effect can be reduced, even removed.

Me as a cyclist
Over the last few years I’ve done a fair bit of cycling. I’ve always enjoyed riding a bike, but over the last three or four years I’ve put a bit of effort in, going on regular social and training rides. In this, my mate Adam was instrumental, pushing me from someone who enjoyed riding a bike occassionally to someone who wanted to get better at it and do more challenging rides.

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Adam, in Spain on a recent training camp.

 

From my first times out with Adam I thought ‘I need to keep up with him’ and ‘I would like to be among the better riders in the cycle club’. I was lucky in that I’d picked a pretty good benchmark, someone extremely good at cycling. Adam and I have both improved as riders, but I still considered (and still consider) myself pretty mediocre as a rider, average at best. However, I did have a moment of clarity a few months ago when I realised that I’d got a lot better at riding my bike, and was now better than most other riders.

Because the people I ride with are strong, I assume that is a typical level to be at.

It’s only when you ride with a more widespread group of cyclists that you realise that’s not the case, and you’re a bit better than average. It’s the polar opposite of my climbing background: I thought to be average I had to keep up with riders like Adam and the mates I ride with on training camps, whereas in reality these people are the equivalent of those leading the big Extreme climbs.

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Me riding (almost) alongside Andy, one of the country’s best hill climbers. If you look hard you can tell that here, nearing the top of Fleet Moss, Andy is cruising while beneath those sunglasses I am on the limit…

First impressions
If I were to have my initial impressions as a climber again, would I change them? No, not in the slightest. They have kept me safe, grounded, and I enjoyed them immensely.

But one thing I now try to do is, when I am lucky enough to introduce someone new to a sport, I am careful not to define things as hard or easy, because those terms are meaningless.

Instead, I try to give a beginner the best supportive introduction I can, one which not put the brakes on them and will make that Weeble a little less grounded, allowing themselves to choose exactly where they want to go, how far to push it. Oh, and to tell them just how important hard work is if you want to get to be good.

 

I wrote a related post, more tongue-in-cheek, on the expertise of hikers and climbers a few years ago. Here it is.

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New possibilities

I’m never going to be a good technical climber. I’m never going to be a good runner. I’m never going to be a top mountaineer. However, I’ve recently had my mind blown as to what you can achieve with just a bit of ability in each of these disciplines…

Take a pinch of running, a sprinkling of climbing, and a healthy dose of mountaineering and you end up with something that I think is very cool indeed. It’s part Kilian Jornet, part Ueli Steck, part vintage Mark Twight. It’s nothing new – it’s just moving fast through the mountains – but the opportunities it opens up are amazing.

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You don’t have to be Ueli to go a bit quicker and get more done.

The USA

I recently went to the USA where the hills are pretty big and the wilderness enormous. In the Cascades where we were, to get from the trailhead to somewhere even just a bit interesting might be five or six miles. In the UK, a lot of your circular routes would be that long; you’d be back in the pub within a few hours and all would be good.

One method to deal with big distances is to load up a huge pack and set off plodding, ready for a very long and tiring day.

It’s the siege tactic, the ‘I will take enough stuff that I can’t fail to get somewhere’ approach.

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Big packs are reassuring and sometimes essential, but there is often an alternative way.

And most people use this method on a big day out: we passed literally hundreds of people doing exactly that. We passed them, however, because we were running. I’ve written on this blog before about the virtues of fell running, but I’d not taken it into bigger mountains before, save for one occasion in the Alps.

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Tiny pack, tiny axe, and a pair of trainers. A big snow ramp ahead.

In the USA I was with a very strong fell runner, and with a pair of microspikes and a mountaineering axe each we got ourselves pretty close to the summit of a pretty big hill (Dragontail in the Cascades, 2694 metres) despite plenty of snow and fairly grotty weather. We retreated because of the weather and visibility but I’d already seen the possibilities.

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Time to retreat: grim weather and not much in the way of protective kit.

The deal

So the deal is you have to move faster to get the route packed into a smaller time, and this means you need to be fitter.

Fitness is the absolute building block: it opens possibilities to you like nothing else.

Secondly, you need to carry less stuff to aid you going faster. By going faster you are out for less long, which is not only convenient but it also reduces the time that you are exposed to potential bad weather or objective dangers. The downside of this is that you’re less prepared if something bad does happen, and if you get tired or injured then you have to get yourself out with minimal kit.

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Strava is an amazing tool for recording your activities and pushing yourself. Just make sure you’re going up a mountain for you and not for someone else.

So what next?

That’s my big question too. A few years ago me and a couple of mates did Ledge Route on Ben Nevis, down the CMD Arete and back to the car park fairly swiftly. We weren’t screaming along by any means, but we did the round trip in about 6 hours if memory serves, moving together fairly quickly on Ledge Route then just pushing on over Carn Mor Dearg. The route in the USA was less technical but further (15 miles), and we went much faster. In the UK there’s a whole host of routes that become possible, and that’s going to be a part of what I’m planning for next winter: moving quickly on non-technical or semi-technical terrain, snow-covered or not. The other obvious area to apply this is in the Alps. I’m under no illusion that I’m not Kilian Jornet, but the possibilities are vast. Kit-wise it’s fairly simple: a mix of running and mountaineering kit, but the tricky part is footwear, as mountain boots don’t really let you run, and in trainers you simply can’t run all day in snow and potential bad weather without risking seriously cold feet (and microspikes definitely have a limit!) Maybe those crazy Salomon boots are the answer… The other thing is legwear, and I think winter running tights or possibly Skimo pants might be just the ticket. Might have to get me some and give them a go.

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The Cascades in WA, USA are pretty ace.

To finish, though, I’d just say give fell/mountain/trail running a crack: go on a route you’d normally hike and run it instead: it’s a totally new experience and opens up such possibilities. You’ll suddenly wonder why you carried so much stuff and took so long before.